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ASU institute leads humanities into significant scholarship

February 20, 2009

Geographers, artists, social scientists and ecologists are stepping outside their comfort zones to learn from one another, while incorporating humanities perspectives into their shared research interests. ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research has taken the lead in promoting excellence and innovation in humanities scholarship by contributing to scholarly research and engaging the community.

The institute explores the significant role that the humanities play in issues and questions normally considered the province of the social sciences, technology studies and the sciences. Part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the institute has two major funding programs for faculty research: year-long collaborative fellowships and seed grants. These programs support humanities faculty research and expose researchers in other fields to what humanities research is, how it operates, and why it is important. Also, these funding initiatives often attract additional external research dollars.

This academic year, ASU received four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, three of which were directly related to the institute.

“Any institution receiving four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities in one funding cycle is extraordinary,” says Professor Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research. “Considering the small amount of funding available and the increasing number of applications, this number is significant. Sponsoring three of these grants demonstrates the positive impact of the institute’s initiatives.”

Celebrating Leopold

Two ASU faculty members received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a summer institute celebrating the 100th anniversary of ecologist, forester and environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s arrival in the Southwest.

Co-directors are Daniel Shilling, a 2007-2008 visiting fellow and research professional in the Institute for Humanities Research, and Joan McGregor, a professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies whose focus is bioethics, environmental ethics, philosophy of law, and social and political philosophy. They will lead scholars in exploring Leopold’s influence in the development of modern environmental ethics and the movement for wilderness preservation.

“The research being conducted by Shilling and McGregor not only enhances the intellectual climate of the university but it also demonstrates how important the humanities are in sustainability research, which is usually considered the province of the sciences,” says Kitch. “This summer institute will bring together the world’s pre-eminent Leopold scholars to focus on the role of literature, philosophy, and history in developing the core principles and values that will directly influence today’s sustainability efforts.”

The month-long summer institute will be held at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Ariz., and will accept 25 college and university faculty members from across the United States. The summer institute will explore the historical, philosophical and cultural sources of Leopold’s ideas to produce new research and develop projects that enhance research and teaching on this topic. Leopold’s celebrated book “A Sand County Almanac,” published in 1949, will be studied from different of perspectives through guest scholars and readings.

“Many people have written about our relationship to the natural environment, but there is a reason we keep going back to the same voices – among them Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold,” says Shilling. “For me, Leopold represents something of a tipping point, where science, culture and economics come together in a powerful, and often beautiful, way.

“Similar to Thoreau and earlier Native American perspectives, Leopold says that we should value the land as something other than a commodity for us to use and exploit. What he adds is strong scientific reasoning, since it was during Leopold's time that foresters and other land managers began to understand the relatively new science of ‘ecology,’ which maintains, among other things, that humans are just one part of the natural landscape – not the dominant part,” he says.

According to Shilling, though Leopold would write his most well-known essays after leaving for Wisconsin in 1924, there is no doubt that his thinking about the land, and our relationship to it, was transformed by his 15-year experience in the Southwest.

“The institute is bringing together some of the nation's finest scholars in environmental history, environmental ethics, nature writing, and related disciplines to serve as faculty; through their classroom activities and field trips to sites that hold historic significance,” says Shilling.  

“The faculty members and participants will also be working with Sharlot Hall Museum to plan a traveling exhibition that captures his book and many contributions to Arizona, such as creating one of the first management plans for Grand Canyon National Park,” he says.

Activities related to the summer institute will include weekly lectures by nationally recognized Leopold scholars, including J. Baird Callicott, Susan Flader, Curt Meine, Scott Russell Sanders and Julianne Warren.

“His significance today is clear: when we speak of ‘sustainability’ and ‘green development,’ for example, we are using the language of Leopold,” says Shilling.

The application deadline is March 2. Notifications of acceptance will be distributed by April 1. More information and application material available at

Arizona-based research

The institute’s seed grant program, established in 2005, addresses socially significant issues with innovative solutions.

In 2008, a team of ASU researchers received a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant to design and implement “Becoming Arizona,” an online e-cyclopedia of Arizona history, culture, politics, economics and other topics as a tribute to Arizona’s centennial in 2012. This project received a $10,000 seed grant from the institute in 2006 to help garner the planning grant.

The project team from ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies includes Nancy Dallett, an academic associate in history; Christine Szuter, professor of practice and director of ASU's Scholarly Publishing Certificate program; Jannelle Warren-Findley, associate professor of history; and Noel Stowe who died Dec. 13, a professor who founded the university’s Public History Program and is recognized for his work in helping Arizona preserve its heritage.

“Becoming Arizona” will fuse the perspectives and expertise of various disciplines at ASU and other stakeholders to plan the creation of the state’s first comprehensive electronic reference tool.

“The seed grant program inspires humanities research in accordance with the mission of the institute, which is to promote transdisciplinary humanities-based, socially engaged research,” says Kitch. “It also serves as a way for our researchers to be more competitive for external funding, which has been very successful, especially last year.”

Another National Endowment for the Humanities grant focusing on Arizona is “Nature and History at the Nation’s Edge: A Field Institute in Environmental and Borderlands History.” The research, teaching and outreach program on the cultural and environmental history of the Sky Islands borderlands region of Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico, is led by a team of historians, geographers and ecologists. The researchers include Paul Hirt, associate professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and affiliated with ASU’s School of Sustainability; Katherine Morrissey, associate professor of history at the University of Arizona; Samuel Truett, associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico; and Marsha Weisiger, associate professor of history at New Mexico State University. The grant will be administered by the University of Arizona and was a result of a 2007 seed grant from the institute.

“We are very pleased to be part of the ASU New American University mission to engage in research that makes a difference, because we think the institute’s projects do make a difference,” says Kitch. “Project after project deals – from a humanities prospective – with some of the most compelling social and cultural concerns of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.”

Seed grant funds are available to junior and senior humanities faculty members or collaborative teams of faculty members involving non-humanists. Up to $12,000 may be requested for the purpose of conducting research and developing proposals for submission to external funding agencies.

The deadline for seed grant applications is April 6. More information at